How to Find Tracks

Sooner or later, most likely sooner, you’ll come across a trail where it’ll seem like the animal levitated across that stretch of ground … And even though you know the tracks have to be there you feel like you can’t see any.

Never give up (unless that works) … There are ways …

This page contains video clips exploring those ways … To use when you hit that particular wall.

Concept Illustrated: Finding the Next Track…

The idea: The focus of this illustration is reading the current track for clues about where to look for the next track.

Reading the current track to tell where the foot was headed will point you towards the next track … A skill guaranteed to be useful.  One way to begin learning this skill is to find or create a track that is a change in direction of forward motion and study it.  Watching the formation of some of the larger track structures that indicate that change will give one a starting place from which to begin that study.

In this clip a human right foot is used to give some idea of how the foot and sand interact when the foot serves as a push point to move the body gently to the left, and what signs of this push are left in the track.

This clip does not show all the indicators of a turn … One big and obvious indicator was intentionally left out (that’s a clue)!

Ways to find the next track … Or predict where it will be found…

(This is not a complete list)

The Tracking Stick: Ancient technology … Multiple uses … It works.  How can you use it to find the next track … While standing?

Reading the current track: Can tell you how much energy was used, where the energy was going, how they used the foot, and which direction they moved.

Feel Tracking:  Another method for finding tracks … Requiring one to sense the track (this is no joke).

The author heard about this in an introductory class taught by Tom Brown, Jr..  After some skepticism the author tried it and discovered that Tom was right, it really does work!

The author has used this method several times, the last time he felt a warm spot in the palm of his hand while it was held over an easily visible track, and by using this method he was able to find a series of tracks that were only faint flattenings, slight scuffs,  a pebble nudged out of its bed, or faint depressions.

The trail meandered, passing through a shaded area on a dirt road of hard-packed damp sandy/stony topsoil that had been rained on the night before.

This shaded hard-packed area is where Feel Tracking came in handy. (On this local soil rain acts to make the soil settled, rigid and packed, and the fine dust gets washed back in among the stones and sand grains.)

Feel tracking is especially useful in spots where substrate movements as a track is being made are minimal or where the natural lighting isn’t bringing out details.

How to do it:

Start with the track just before the animal levitated.  Hold your hand about an inch or two above that track (palm down works for the author) and avoid touching the track if you can.   Now slowly move your hand back and forth or sideways above the track, far enough that your hand clears the track an is above undisturbed ground.

When your hand is above the track, or partially that way, you may notice a sensation; warmth on the palm, or back of the hand, or a tingle in the shoulder muscle, or something unique to you.

This sensation is the indicator that your hand is above or very near a track.  Since it may be different for you … Experiment.  Learning to tune into this sensation may take some time so don’t give up easily.

Now move your hand slowly in the direction of travel and pay attention to the same location on your body where you first noticed the sensation.  Sometimes a series of short arcs across the area works also.  When you get that sensation again examine the area under your palm closely, looking for the track, it may be faint so look carefully.

To follow a trail of hard to see tracks you may need to repeat this process, marking the location of each track, until you find one that is obvious.

Another experiment: What are the limits for this sense?  An inch…A yard…A mile?  What happens if, after you’ve sensed one of these tracks, you aim your palm up the trail?

(Human foot mesh modified from

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Concept Illustrated: Adjusting Lighting to Increase Visibility of Tracks

The Idea:   This illustration demonstrates a valuable technique for using a light source, here a flashlight, to reveal and control which details you see in a track.

Shadows make tracks visible and bring out the details.  At night, in heavy shade, and even during the day when clouds or angle of the sun reduce the amount of shadow, tracks and details may not be visible.

During the day and even in full sun you can bring out more detail by using some object to cast shade around and across the track and then reflecting sunlight into the shaded area.

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Concept Illustrated: Track on ‘Bare’ Rock (Red Fox Front Foot)

The idea: Some tracks can be found even on “bare” rock and this is only a hint at the obvious version.


Concept Illustrated: Using Stone Rolls to Find Tracks

Nudging ... Square-ish

The idea:  Searching for disturbances of stones embedded in soil is another way to find tracks when they aren’t obvious … Illustrate this concept using a small-ish stone rolled by a deer foot …

Well, ok, that photo to the left might be a slight exaggeration … Just a little.  Yet it does demonstrate the main idea.

Soil conditions, and the way those affect soil response to a foot, are constantly changing.  When tracks are created in some soil conditions it’s easy to find them, in other conditions not so much.

For example:  In this area while it is raining faint tracks can wash away, and deep tracks slump.  When the rain ends this soil drains quickly, but can stay damp and packed for quite a while, even a day or more.  So packed and settled that the hoof of a deer walking after the rain sometimes leaves only the faintest of tracks.

When soil conditions hold only faint tracks …  Dullings, scuffs, slight depressions, etc. … It can take much longer to read or follow even a section of a trail.

Sometimes it is useful to minimize the time it takes to find the tracks you need to see.  How?  There are several strategies.  One is to search for stone rolls, and this is especially easy on open ground after a soaking rain when everything has settled into a fresh, undisturbed surface.

What happens to the soil when it rains?  Ever watch?  That’s a good place to start.  In this area the rain carries soil into and seals the gaps where embedded stones and soil surface meet, and rounds the edges of holes already in the soil … And the surface will weather from this state unless something has disturbed it.

The least sign left when someone does disturb this surface can be kinda faint.  As little is a tiny open crack at what was the rain-sealed boundary of soil and stone, a faint dulling or a slight depression.

 More obvious sign can include stones knocked completely out of their beds, leaving a patchy trail of disturbed stones that can be easily seen with a little practice.

Like most other track features there are large stone rolls and tiny … Old stone rolls and fresh … Stones just slightly rocked in their beds, or pushed deeper … And stones so large they don’t seem to notice they were stepped on, fortunately there is dust everywhere.


Concept Illustrated: Lifts and Drops as Track Features and Indicators of Direction of Foot Movement

Sand lifted away from frozen ground by the shoe.

The idea:  “Lifts” … things stick to the foot surface as the track is made and are moved along with the foot until they fall, or are knocked off.  The holes or imprints left can be all or part of the track, the material stuck on the foot can also distort the next track.

And … “Drops” … things fall away from or are knocked off the moving foot … These can sometimes indicate direction of travel for the foot.

The idea here is to illustrate the process of a lift and the subsequent drops, also the ways they may give clues about direction of foot travel.

Soil conditions are constantly varying. Lifts can happen in almost any soil when conditions favor.  In the photo at left it is 7:40 a.m. on April 28 at about 9,000 feet.  The sun rose at about 6 a.m. but only reached this spot recently enough to thaw a thin layer of the hard-packed damp sand still frozen from a long cold winter, while also melting a shallow layer of snow from the previous evening.  It’s an interesting example for reading the age of a track.

When the author was a kid he learned to avoid certain places, clay-rich ground for example, where walking became progressively more difficult as the mud built on his shoes (and slippery? Ever try greasy clay mud skating?) … Once back on dryer ground an obvious trail of mud grew as bits fell off with every step.

The next track … There always is one, but seeing it is sometimes a serious challenge.   Reading the clues in the last track found … those about where that foot went … is a valuable tool for finding the hard to see track.

Do you think there might be more than one kind of useful information in the trail of soil particles and surface debris lifted away and dropped from the foot as it leaves contact with the earth … Some falling away as the foot travels back to the ground … some carried into the next track or even further?

Lifts can range from a single sand grain up to an area as large as everything else stuck on the bottom and sides of the foot, and can carry useful information from the track where they originated clear into the next several tracks.  Or even back home … Might Sherlock Holmes have deduced where the shoes had been from the kind of mud freshly caked on parts of a shoe?

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The links below will take you to the rest of the illustrations.

Page: The Concepts of Tracking…
Testing Sand
The Translucent Foot
Whole Track: Red Fox – One Forward Step

Page: Foot Movements …
Canine Claw Tip Leaves Track in Fine Sand

Page: How To Read Tracks …
Dust Compressions (Dull on Shiny by Canine Toe Pad)
Simple Tire Track and Direction of Travel
True Track (Canine Toe Pad)

Page: Species …
Deer Foot – One Walking Step
Red Fox Front and Rear Feet – Side Trot

Page: Track Features …
Pressure Against the Track Wall (Canine Toe Pad)
Simple ? Wave
The Layer of Sand in Contact With The Foot
The Ridge Between Canine Front Toes